Old Ask Nathan Thread

Questions for the resident (former) agent
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Holly
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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Holly » February 4th, 2010, 7:11 am

Good morning, Nathan.

What's the best way to format the writing sample pasted below an email query letter?

(A) Single-space, no indents, with white space between paragraphs

(B) Single-space, with indents, no white space between paragraphs (longer sample w/ room for the important paragraph about the dog that eats the couch)

(C) Send as text and underline the italics (if the agent doesn't give a preference)

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Nathan Bransford » February 4th, 2010, 7:38 pm

Holly wrote:Good morning, Nathan.

What's the best way to format the writing sample pasted below an email query letter?

(A) Single-space, no indents, with white space between paragraphs

(B) Single-space, with indents, no white space between paragraphs (longer sample w/ room for the important paragraph about the dog that eats the couch)

(C) Send as text and underline the italics (if the agent doesn't give a preference)
Either way - I don't think there's really a standard. Just so it's reasonably readable.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Username » February 4th, 2010, 10:12 pm

What I can't figure out is how you're able to decide so quickly what's worthy of your attention, and what's not?

I think I can safely say that most of us readers have abandoned at least one novel within a matter of pages, only to return to it later on to discover that, really, it was a masterpiece.

The first time this happened to me was when I was in university, when an English prof. of mine told me to read 'A Passage To India', which actually wasn't on the reading list. I think I might've read about ten chapters before giving up - it all just seemed a bit thick, especially in the midst of all the other fiction I was reading at the time (I think that, in general, university professors make the mistake of packing too much material onto their reading lists: it really should be a matter of quality over quantity - young people, I think, need the time to absorb the material, rather than just 'get through it all').

I think, as well, that maybe I was a bit too young to grasp most of A Passage's main themes. The complex relationships between Mr. Fielding and Dr. Aziz, and between Mrs. Moore and her son, Ronny, were simply beyond my scope as a young man, still in my early twenties. As an older person I can now appreciate to a greater degree many of the situations between these characters, having now experienced many of these situations myself.

As a much younger man, for example, I was confused when Forster wrote that Fielding's craving for the verbal truth had dulled, and that what he cared for now was chiefly truth of mood - as an older person I completely understand this, having lost my own craving for the verbal truth. (I've noticed that people who are such sticklers for the verbal truth are usually only concerned with catching somebody in a lie so that they can communicate news of the transgression to the rest of the herd - they don't actually care for the truth at all... they simply want to catch somebody out.)

Another example: Just five years ago a friend of mine recommended a P.G. Wodehouse novel titled 'Right Ho Jeeves!' I dutifully read it, and just as dutifully disliked it. This novel just wasn't my cup of tea. Here's what astonishes me though: at the time I thought nothing of the writing itself, but last summer, when I re-read the novel, I was gobsmacked by Wodehouse's sheer command of the English language. The guy is absolutely superb!

But how did I miss this? I had read the novel from cover to cover and had not even noticed the dazzling conceits, which lined every page.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Nathan Bransford » February 4th, 2010, 10:39 pm

Username wrote:What I can't figure out is how you're able to decide so quickly what's worthy of your attention, and what's not?

I think I can safely say that most of us readers have abandoned at least one novel within a matter of pages, only to return to it later on to discover that, really, it was a masterpiece.

The first time this happened to me was when I was in university, when an English prof. of mine told me to read 'A Passage To India', which actually wasn't on the reading list. I think I might've read about ten chapters before giving up - it all just seemed a bit thick, especially in the midst of all the other fiction I was reading at the time (I think that, in general, university professors make the mistake of packing too much material onto their reading lists: it really should be a matter of quality over quantity - young people, I think, need the time to absorb the material, rather than just 'get through it all').

I think, as well, that maybe I was a bit too young to grasp most of A Passage's main themes. The complex relationships between Mr. Fielding and Dr. Aziz, and between Mrs. Moore and her son, Ronny, were simply beyond my scope as a young man, still in my early twenties. As an older person I can now appreciate to a greater degree many of the situations between these characters, having now experienced many of these situations myself.

As a much younger man, for example, I was confused when Forster wrote that Fielding's craving for the verbal truth had dulled, and that what he cared for now was chiefly truth of mood - as an older person I completely understand this, having lost my own craving for the verbal truth. (I've noticed that people who are such sticklers for the verbal truth are usually only concerned with catching somebody in a lie so that they can communicate news of the transgression to the rest of the herd - they don't actually care for the truth at all... they simply want to catch somebody out.)

Another example: Just five years ago a friend of mine recommended a P.G. Wodehouse novel titled 'Right Ho Jeeves!' I dutifully read it, and just as dutifully disliked it. This novel just wasn't my cup of tea. Here's what astonishes me though: at the time I thought nothing of the writing itself, but last summer, when I re-read the novel, I was gobsmacked by Wodehouse's sheer command of the English language. The guy is absolutely superb!

But how did I miss this? I had read the novel from cover to cover and had not even noticed the dazzling conceits, which lined every page.
First off, let me just say up front that I'm not going to pretend that the query system is perfect or that I'm infallible or anything like that. We don't have the query system because it's so great, but rather that no one has come up with an alternate system that's any better.

But to answer your question, quite simply, it's relatively easy to make quick decisions because my inbox is not full of Forsters and Wodehouses, or at least, not very often. While there is certainly talent on display and it's often a very hard decision, every query is not a choice you outline above, between great writing that's very accessible and great writing where they are terrifically talented and incredible stylists but perhaps I have to wait a while to really engage with the story. If you sent me the most boring chapter out a novel like A PASSAGE TO INDIA (or at least a more modern equivalent), I'd leap out of my seat. I'd read on because of the writing, not necessarily because I'm engaging straightaway with the story.

I'm not reading queries to find out if it's a book I want to read or one I'm engaging with on a cerebral level - I'm looking for what is, according to my best guess and judgment, a publishable plot and/or publishable quality of writing. And by today's publishing standards, where it's harder than ever to get a book through the process, it's terrifically rare to find that. After reading queries and manuscripts and books practically all day every day for over seven years, the projects I know I want to take on and am confident I can sell stand out like the author is writing in a different color. Even then I can't always get them through the path to publication.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by tameson » February 4th, 2010, 11:13 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote: After reading queries and manuscripts and books practically all day every day for over seven years, the projects I know I want to take on and am confident I can sell stand out like the author is writing in a different color. Even then I can't always get them through the path to publication.
Which color is that- cause my computer will let me change the font to any color your like? ;)
(And sadly, yes I do think I am funny).

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Username » February 4th, 2010, 11:41 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote:
Username wrote:What I can't figure out is how you're able to decide so quickly what's worthy of your attention, and what's not?

I think I can safely say that most of us readers have abandoned at least one novel within a matter of pages, only to return to it later on to discover that, really, it was a masterpiece.

The first time this happened to me was when I was in university, when an English prof. of mine told me to read 'A Passage To India', which actually wasn't on the reading list. I think I might've read about ten chapters before giving up - it all just seemed a bit thick, especially in the midst of all the other fiction I was reading at the time (I think that, in general, university professors make the mistake of packing too much material onto their reading lists: it really should be a matter of quality over quantity - young people, I think, need the time to absorb the material, rather than just 'get through it all').

I think, as well, that maybe I was a bit too young to grasp most of A Passage's main themes. The complex relationships between Mr. Fielding and Dr. Aziz, and between Mrs. Moore and her son, Ronny, were simply beyond my scope as a young man, still in my early twenties. As an older person I can now appreciate to a greater degree many of the situations between these characters, having now experienced many of these situations myself.

As a much younger man, for example, I was confused when Forster wrote that Fielding's craving for the verbal truth had dulled, and that what he cared for now was chiefly truth of mood - as an older person I completely understand this, having lost my own craving for the verbal truth. (I've noticed that people who are such sticklers for the verbal truth are usually only concerned with catching somebody in a lie so that they can communicate news of the transgression to the rest of the herd - they don't actually care for the truth at all... they simply want to catch somebody out.)

Another example: Just five years ago a friend of mine recommended a P.G. Wodehouse novel titled 'Right Ho Jeeves!' I dutifully read it, and just as dutifully disliked it. This novel just wasn't my cup of tea. Here's what astonishes me though: at the time I thought nothing of the writing itself, but last summer, when I re-read the novel, I was gobsmacked by Wodehouse's sheer command of the English language. The guy is absolutely superb!

But how did I miss this? I had read the novel from cover to cover and had not even noticed the dazzling conceits, which lined every page.
First off, let me just say up front that I'm not going to pretend that the query system is perfect or that I'm infallible or anything like that. We don't have the query system because it's so great, but rather that no one has come up with an alternate system that's any better.

But to answer your question, quite simply, it's relatively easy to make quick decisions because my inbox is not full of Forsters and Wodehouses, or at least, not very often. While there is certainly talent on display and it's often a very hard decision, every query is not a choice you outline above, between great writing that's very accessible and great writing where they are terrifically talented and incredible stylists but perhaps I have to wait a while to really engage with the story. If you sent me the most boring chapter out a novel like A PASSAGE TO INDIA (or at least a more modern equivalent), I'd leap out of my seat. I'd read on because of the writing, not necessarily because I'm engaging straightaway with the story.

I'm not reading queries to find out if it's a book I want to read or one I'm engaging with on a cerebral level - I'm looking for what is, according to my best guess and judgment, a publishable plot and/or publishable quality of writing. And by today's publishing standards, where it's harder than ever to get a book through the process, it's terrifically rare to find that. After reading queries and manuscripts and books practically all day every day for over seven years, the projects I know I want to take on and am confident I can sell stand out like the author is writing in a different color. Even then I can't always get them through the path to publication.

Why then, did you not instantly recognize the genius of my writing, which I sent you last summer, and which you quickly rejected?

Can you not see the sheer quality of this opening segment?

HIS NAME WAS Jean Christophe Novello and he was the thirty-three year old chef-proprietor of Chartreuse restaurant, which bordered Wandsworth Common on the south bank of the River Thames, in south-west London. Born in The Black Country, Chef Christophe entered the industry at the age of sixteen when his father, seeing that he wasn’t progressing in school, withdrew him and ordered him into town, to find work as a kitchen apprentice. At The Hotel St. Germain Christophe discovered that his dyslexia, which had been a hindrance to his academic growth, was now an irrelevancy, and that what mattered in a professional working kitchen was not book-smarts, but rather a thing known to cooks as kitchen awareness, or the ability to rely on the senses when cooking. The sounds that food made when it was cooking could be as important as the smell or the sight of it. Likewise, a cook working the meat section needed to have the touch, as to test the meat with the tip of his finger for its degree of doneness. A cook with an exaggerated facility to survive in a working kitchen would inevitably be gifted with a preternaturally strong sense of kitchen-awareness, as though born specifically to do the job: 'this is a physical place', something had said to Christophe on his first day in a professional kitchen. He had picked up his pairing knife and had commenced to peel potatoes - and the words had seemingly dropped out of the air: 'there is no book learning in this place, Christophe, you can survive in here'.

At age eighteen Christophe, having by now demonstrated to his Chef that he was prepared to put in whatever hours were necessary, and that he would do exactly as he was told, left The Hotel St. Germain with strong references, and for the next eight years worked for a succession of starred chefs, each one French, each one classically trained, each one recently exiled to England where, after years of searching, he had finally found his success.

“This is what you have to do to become a chef,” his first mate in the industry had said to him one afternoon.

He was a tall, skinny cook, many years older than Christophe, and he had taken him under his wing to help him along, just as an older cook had helped him along when he had entered the industry, years earlier, as a troubled teenager. “To become a great chef, Christophe, you have to become a slave... first to one great chef... and then to another, and to another, and to another... until finally you’ve learned enough about cooking to run a kitchen of your own and can now pass along your knowledge to younger, less experienced cooks. There are three or four truly great Chefs in this country, Christophe. Go out and find them... believe it or not, but they need you as much as you need them, although at this stage you won’t ever hear any of them say that out loud.”

Indeed, it is not enough for a teacher to be great. A great teacher must have great pupils as well. In the world of gastronomy, whenever a great chef mentored an inherently talented cook, such as Christophe - or rather, when the two somehow found one another, which was as rare an occurrence, almost, as an eclipse of the sun - then the result would invariably be a starred chef. And not just a starred chef but often a three-starred chef, of which, at the time, there were only fifty-four in the entire world.

His cooks never called him Jean or Christophe or Mr. Novello or even Boss, to them he was simply known as Chef.

They loved him dearly, with a passion that bordered on fanaticism, and if he had ever asked them to do so, it was likely that each of them, without even thinking about the consequences, would have thrown himself off the London Bridge and into the icy waters of the River Thames below.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Nathan Bransford » February 4th, 2010, 11:50 pm

I can't tell if you're serious or not, so I'll just assume you are, and say that this: the genius-level writers I know spend most of their time fearing that they're not any good and trying to get better rather than wondering why other people don't recognize their genius.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Username » February 4th, 2010, 11:53 pm

I was joking.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Nathan Bransford » February 4th, 2010, 11:56 pm

Username wrote:I was joking.
My mistake! Tough to interpret intent on the Internet.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Username » February 5th, 2010, 12:30 am

But in all seriousness, you write that you've been an agent for over seven years now - okay, that surprises me.

If I were to have judged, based on your photograph alone, I would have said you were much younger than what you must be. (Although I suppose your photograph could simply be an old one?) The number seven is always of interest to me. I have a theory that we pass through phases, and that each phase usually lasts about seven years.

So how have you grown as an agent these past seven years? What would be the chief difference between the Nathan of now, and the Nathan of then?

Do you perhaps have less debt now?

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Nathan Bransford » February 5th, 2010, 12:55 am

Username wrote:But in all seriousness, you write that you've been an agent for over seven years now - okay, that surprises me.

If I were to have judged, based on your photograph alone, I would have said you were much younger than what you must be. (Although I suppose your photograph could simply be an old one?) The number seven is always of interest to me. I have a theory that we pass through phases, and that each phase usually lasts about seven years.

So how have you grown as an agent these past seven years? What would be the chief difference between the Nathan of now, and the Nathan of then?

Do you perhaps have less debt now?
I'm 29 - I haven't been an agent for seven years, I started as an assistant (where I was reading queries, mansucripts, etc. for other agents) seven years ago. I started taking on my first clients after about three years with CB and I've been building my list in earnest since around 2007.

I think the Nathan of 22 thought it would be really easy to build your list, find NY Times bestsellers, and pull gem after gem from the slush pile. How hard could it be? Now I know that there's nothing easy about this business in the slightest. Especially not now, when publishers are looking mainly for sure things. It's really tough to make it as a young agent these days, and there aren't that many of us. I'm extremely lucky to have such incredible mentors at CB.

And yes, less debt.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Jaime » February 5th, 2010, 1:29 am

Oh, the dreaded 3-0 is going to sucker-punch both of us this year, Nathan! It's no wonder you love monkeys!

I want to say that, personally, I wouldn't be too concerned about the age of an agent (both biologically and professionally speaking) - if they work for a reputable agency, then I would assume they have a grounded support system. If anything, an agent who is just starting out - and trying to build a list - would be a good thing. They may be more willing to take on debut novelists.

Oh, and I have a question I've been sitting on for a while. I have read that romance novels must, must, MUST have a happy ending. Does this apply to all categories of romance?

Jaime.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by SigorneySouders » February 5th, 2010, 3:01 am

Nathan, your forum is truly amazing! I was wondering if you could take a look at Johydai's Query, something EMBERO. I know all we try to do is help, but she gets 5 posts with 5 completely different answers. I was about to give her a 6th different answer, but I figure I ask you, since you know more about this that I do, to take a second and look over her query and give her a more concrete answer. Her query doesn't POP yet, but it sounds like a potential bestseller.

Thank you for the wonderful forum,
Sigorney Marleen Souders

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by Holly » February 5th, 2010, 4:06 am

Nathan Bransford wrote:
Holly wrote:Good morning, Nathan.

What's the best way to format the writing sample pasted below an email query letter?
Either way - I don't think there's really a standard. Just so it's reasonably readable.
Thanks. You're really a good guy to answer all these questions.

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Re: Ask Nathan

Post by d minus » February 5th, 2010, 2:52 pm

Nathan Bransford wrote:Now I know that there's nothing easy about this business in the slightest. Especially not now, when publishers are looking mainly for sure things.
do publishers ever tell you why they reject a manuscript? Do they ever explain (too x, too y, not enough z), or do they just pass with a simple No Thanks?
I'm sure it depends. I guess I don't know a lot about the agent/publisher relationship, if you can call it that.

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